Our critics’ picks: The films, albums and books that defined a decade

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Josh Bell on film

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Two strangers approach each other tentatively on a mostly empty commuter train, slowly teasing out each other’s quirks. One is shy and introverted, the other bold and impulsive. Gradually, they warm to one another, realizing that their differences are complementary, and their connection is stronger than anything that could place them apart. It’s the blossoming of a new romance.

Except it’s all happened before, and the two people, Joel and Clementine (played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet), don’t remember it. They don’t remember because the blossoming of a new romance is followed by the crushing boredom of routine, and eventually by the bitter recriminations of a relationship’s dissolution—and Joel and Clementine have each paid a company known as Lacuna to erase the memories of their relationship.

In the brilliant, devastating Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman use the sci-fi device of memory manipulation to explore the human capacity for emotional suffering in the futile and undeniable pursuit of love. It’s easy to wish away the pain of heartbreak, but Eternal Sunshine shows that the joy of love is worth nothing without that pain, that what makes us happy and what makes us unbearably sad is often the same thing, just at different times.

Throughout the backward chronology of Joel and Clementine’s relationship as played out in Joel’s rapidly disappearing memory, Gondry uses every cinematic element—cinematography, art direction, sound design—to build a world of overwhelming emotional intensity, and Carrey and Winslet match his every move. These are not people for whom love solves all problems, or who will ever face a happily ever after. But as Joel and Clementine stand listening to the hateful words they’ve spoken about one another, words they don’t even remember and yet on some level know are true, and recommit wholeheartedly to being together, there’s a genuine hope and terror about love that reaches deeper than any romantic movie you’ll ever see.

2. Almost Famous (2000)

3. Zodiac (2007)

4. Before Sunset (2004)

5. About Schmidt (2002)

6. The New World (2005)

7. Bring It On (2000)

8. Margot at the Wedding (2007)

9. Memento (2000)

10. Come Early Morning (2006)

11. Unbreakable (2000)

12. Nobody Knows (2005)

13. No Country for Old Men (2007)

14. Funny Games (2008)

15. Wonder Boys (2000)

16. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

17. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

18. Match Point (2005)

19. Traffic (2000)

20. Lost in Translation (2003)

21. The Good Thief (2003)

22. Mulholland Drive (2001)

23. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

24. Rachel Getting Married (2008)

25. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Mike D’Angelo on film

1. Memento (2000)


No film of the past 10 years has pulled off a more dazzling marriage of form and content—or painted a stealthier, more disturbing portrait of human nature—than Memento, the second feature written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Years before he resuscitated the Batman franchise, Nolan took a short story written by his younger brother, Jonathan (with whom he subsequently penned The Prestige and The Dark Knight), about a man with no short-term memory, and tried to work out the best way to convey to a movie audience the bizarre sensation of perpetually being unable to recall whatever has just happened. His brilliant solution: Tell the story in reverse order, starting at the climax and working doggedly backward, scene by disorienting scene, to the inciting incident. (In truth, the film’s structure is even more clever than that, converging upon the key moment from two chronological directions—one in color, the other in black-and-white.) Most narrative films tend to involve waiting out the inevitable; watching Memento, uniquely, forces you to ask fundamental “why” questions every few minutes.

What makes the film a masterpiece, however, is the way that it ultimately undermines the very notion of “why.” (Spoilers now commence.) Using an elaborate system of notes, Polaroids and tattoos, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) tracks down his late wife’s killer, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano at his most weaselly), achieving bloody revenge in the opening scene; only at the end—which is to say, the beginning—do we learn that Leonard deliberately set himself on the wrong track, knowing that he’d immediately forget his lie and consider it gospel. Using this self-deluded detective as befuddled metaphor, Memento tackles what is perhaps the most unsettling truth about the human psyche: that we have little or no idea what truly motivates us, that we spend our entire lives seeking people, things and experiences for reasons we’ve either repressed or long forgotten. That Nolan was able to present such a heady philosophical idea in such a fiendishly entertaining package (“Okay, so where am I? Oh, I’m chasing this guy. No ... he’s chasing me.”) qualifies as the cinematic coup of the decade if anything does.

2. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

3. Afterschool (2008)

4. Dogville (2003)

5. Silent Light (2007)

6. State and Main (2000)

7. In the Mood for Love (2000)

8. The Prestige (2006)

9. 25th Hour (2002)

10. Primer (2004)

11. Everyone Else (2009)

12. Death Proof (2007)

13. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005)

14. Ghost World (2001)

15. My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

16. Pulse (2001)

17. Gerry (2002)

18. Tropical Malady (2004)

19. Hero (2002)

20. Paranoid Park (2007)

21. Devils on the Doorstep (2000)

22. Adaptation (2002)

23. Songs From the Second Floor (2000)

24. Julia (2008)

25. Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Spencer Patterson on music

1. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (2003)

Radiohead, Hail to the Thief

Disc 2 of Physical Graffiti (you know, the one without “Kashmir” on it). No matter how many times I listen, I always find myself thinking, “Oh right, that song,” about any one of five or six forgotten treasures. Well, that’s Hail to the Thief for me in a nutshell. I’ve easily spun it more than any 2000s album, yet it continues to reveal itself in ways typically reserved for sprawling, two-record sets like Double Nickels on the Dime, Songs in the Key of Life and The White Album.

Technically, Hail had its “singles,” but I don’t remember radio stations actually playing “There There,” “Go to Sleep” or “2+2=5.” So the 14 tracks have a remarkable equality to them—nothing I ever skip over, nothing I ever skip to. And practically every time I finish the disc, I’ve got a new favorite cut. The ethereal “Sail to the Moon.” The panoramic “Go to Sleep.” The insistent “Myxomatosis.” The hypnotic “Wolf at the Door.” The list of contenders is long, 14 tracks long, to be precise.

As much as I admire both the advanced rock degree of The Bends and OK Computer and the adventurous spirit of Kid A and Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief marks the moment when the band’s straight-up songwriting and electronic experimentation met in the middle, with results both unpretentious and artistically elegant. Simply put, what might go down as Radiohead’s least-heralded album since its debut isn’t just my pick as the best in that catalog. It’s an easy choice as my favorite disc of the decade.

2. Erykah Badu, Mama’s Gun (2000)

3. Liars, They Were Wrong So We Drowned (2004)

4. Björk, Verspertine (2001)

5. Drive-By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera (2001)

6. Sunset Rubdown, Random Spirit Lover (2007)

7. Portishead, Third (2008)

8. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain (2006)

9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Yanqui U.X.O. (2002)

10. Akron/Family, Akron/Family (2005)

11. Unwound, Leaves Turn Inside You (2001)

12. The Knife, Silent Shout (2006)

13. Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007)

14. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)

15. Liars, Drum’s Not Dead (2006)

16. Cat Power, You Are Free (2003)

17. Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam (2007)

18. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000)

19. Deerhoof, Milk Man (2004)

20. The Microphones, The Glow, Pt. 2 (2001)

21. Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co. (2003)

22. J Dilla, Donuts (2006)

23. Dirty Three, She Has No Strings Apollo (2003)

24. No-Neck Blues Band, Qvaris (2005)

25. Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)

John Freeman on books

1. True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey (2000)

True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey

In London, where zero is nought, and wordplay is foreplay, these last 10 years are being dubbed the noughties. But aside from this recent burst of Almodovar films, it’s hard to see what has been sexy about these past 10 years. Tsunamis, earthquakes, poisoned Ukrainian prime ministers, idiotic wars. It’s more like one, long hangover.

And it’s been a challenging time for writers, too: How to engage or even carve a line through a period like this without becoming a cudgeling buzz-kill? The book that tops them all is a shining example of what can be accomplished through historical refraction. You needn’t come at a period head-on, or even at all. The power to comment can simply emerge in the story itself.

And so, it is possible to read Peter Carey’s hilarious, profound and majestically narrated True History of the Kelly Gang as simply a historical romp through postcolonial Australia. Kelly is to Australians what Thomas Jefferson is to Americans—a founding father of sorts whose influence is felt in an intimate way with one important difference. As Carey once put it, your people came here by choice; our lot was sent.

But how interesting in a time of the so-called flat world to encounter a hero whose claim to fame was not what he accumulated, but rather what he stole and gave away (in one of his early bank robberies, he reportedly burned all the bank’s deed notes for mortgages).

But either way, find this book, read it, and follow Kelly’s brilliant, Faulknerian, ribald voice as he describes in a letter to his daughter his life’s journey: his hardscrabble arrival, the impoverishment, the starvation, the loss of his mother and the fury with which he rose to become the Robin Hood of the outback, robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)

3. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald (2001)

4. The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, Daniel Mendelsohn (2006)

5. Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich (2006)

6. Codes, Precepts, Biases and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993, Lawrence Joseph (2005)

7. Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, B.H. Fairchild (2002)

8. Fatelessness, Imre Kertesz (2004)

9. The Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury (2006)

10. The Known World, Edward P. Jones (2004)

11. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)

12. In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar (2006)

13. The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, Dinaw Mengestu (2007)

14. The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand (2002)

15. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami (2006)

16. Istanbul: Memories of a City, Orhan Pamuk (2005)

17. Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra (2006)

18. The Master, Colm Toibin (2004)

19. Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolano (2006)

20. Human Cargo, Caroline Moorehead (2005)

21. Night Draws Near: Iraqs People in the Shadow of Americas War, Anthony Shadid (2005)

22. Postwar, Tony Judt (2005)

23. Rails Beneath My Back, Jeffrey Renard Allen (2000)

24. The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross (2007)

25. Youth, Scenes From a Provincial Life, J.M. Coetzee (2002)


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